In movies about people in the federal witness protection program (I keep thinking of My Blue Heaven and Sister Act, though I’m sure there are better examples), it’s practically inevitable that the main character gets found out by the very bad guys he’s trying to hide from. And so it goes in The Family, Luc Besson’s not-bad new comedy about a former mafioso (Robert De Niro) relocated to Normandy, France, along with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and teenage kids (Dianna Agron, John D’Leo). Thankfully, Besson makes the best of a screenwriting cliche; the way De Niro’s enemies learn of his whereabouts comprises one of the film’s cleverest sequences. It begins in Normandy, where De Niro’s son is asked to submit an English-language pun to the high school newspaper. He recalls, in flashback, a joke that one of his father’s mob buddies told another: the goon had decided to see a production of Boris Godunov because “if it’s ‘Godunov'” for a friend, “it’s good enough for me.” The paper goes to press and, a few shots later, a classmate brings it home. It then makes its way into the briefcase of the boy’s father, who leaves the next day on a business trip to New York. When the father arrives, he throws away the paper, which goes to a junkyard and then to the home of one of the men who work there. An associate of his uses the paper to wrap up a bottle of wine, which he delivers to the prison cell of a gangster who’d been identified in court by De Niro.
This extended gag is like something out of classic Looney Tunes. While it’s transpiring, the entire world of the film seems a plastic, malleable thing. Besson shifts from past to present tense, speeds up time so that several days’ worth of coincidences proceed like a brisk chain reaction, and briefly adopts the perspective of a newspaper. (That the narrative development hinges on a pun is another playful touch.) It’s a pleasant instance of visual wit, something that seems to have fallen out of favor with mainstream U.S. audiences. Looking at the year’s biggest box office hits to date, the five comedies to crack the top 20—The Heat, Identity Thief, We’re the Millers, Grown Ups 2, and The Hangover Part III—trade mainly in verbal humor (though it’s worth noting that Melissa McCarthy, who appears in three of these titles, is more adept at physical comedy than the stars of any other movie on this list). Conversely, two of the summer’s biggest bombs—The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D.—feature plenty of slapstick and other cartoon-style gags.
Of course, American spectators still enjoy cartoon-style gags—at present three of this year’s top ten moneymakers are Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, and The Croods. Yet they don’t seem especially interested in live-action movies that stretch the laws of physical reality like cartoons do, even though this sort of filmmaking counts as one of the richest traditions in American cinema. It’s a tradition that goes back to Mack Sennett’s two-reel comedies (and vaudeville stage shows before that) and continues with Buster Keaton and other silent movie clowns, and with Frank Tashlin, Jerry Lewis, Joe Dante, and the early films of Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers. Now that digital effects allow filmmakers to construct new worlds more easily than ever before, perhaps viewers find it old-fashioned to watch filmmakers merely stretch out a world that already exists.
It’s highly unlikely that The Family will disrupt any of these trends. The film fully admits to being backward looking—it takes place in the mid-90s and often looks like it was shot then. Further, the relaxed pacing and genial, self-parodying performances from De Niro, Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones (all of whom have done this sort of thing before) are signs that the movie has little to prove. Yet the movie isn’t lifeless or inane. Its best moments illustrate that a film can communicate a good deal through old-fashioned cartoonishness—namely, certain cultural observations that might be less convincing if presented realistically.
As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that De Niro isn’t spoofing just his roles in earlier crime movies but American stereotypes in general. His character, his wife, and their daughter are all violent hotheads—whenever they encounter conflict, their first instinct is to pummel, kill, or wreak extensive property damage. For this reason, they have trouble staying undercover for very long, forcing the Witness Protection Program to give them new identities every several months. (Jones, playing the federal agent overseeing their case, seems to be spoofing his beleaguered lawman from No Country for Old Men.) Their son, on the other hand, channels his energy into ambitious racketeering operations. In another comic set piece, he sizes up the black markets in his new high school (cigarettes, answers to math tests, etc) in the fashion of De Niro’s narration from Casino.
All four family members are caricatures of all-American corruption. They’re dangerous, cunning, and crass—but also earthy, direct, and smart with money. Even their worst habits bespeak a certain internal logic. When De Niro’s character, writing his memoirs, defends himself as a good guy, his number one reason is “I never hurt people who don’t deserve it because I satisfy all my sadistic urges hurting people who do deserve it.” Likewise, after his daughter beats the stuffing out of some lecherous boys at school (a bunch of pathetic, acne-ridden thugs who seem to have wandered in from a Bruno Dumont movie), she gives them a lecture about respecting women as they’re doubled over in pain.
Besson presents these characters with affection even when he’s satirizing their immorality and their insensitivity to French culture. In this ambivalence, The Family might be considered a personal work. Besson first came to prominence in the 80s as part of a movement known as “cinema du look,” making movies in the tradition of Hollywood spectacles that favored action and visual design over narrative content. In the past decade he’s made a fortune by writing and producing thrillers like Taken and the Transporter franchise, American-style entertainments with European settings. By recasting American mob movie cliches against the backdrop of French provincial life, Besson seems to be acknowledging the silliness of his fixation with American genre filmmaking. At the same time, The Family is hardly an act of apology. The violent fantasies and nonviolent sight gags reveal a not-yet-dormant imagination at work, displaying Besson’s indebtedness to American cultural excess in the creation of his own.